4 of 5 stars
Published October 2006
This is a debut novel by a Canadian writer, Heather O’Neill from Montreal and it is sharp, gritty and heartbreaking but ultimately full of hope.
Baby is a 12/13 year old living with her father in a series of grotty apartments in Montreal. Her father, Jules, can barely look after himself let alone a child. He was only 15 when she was born and hadn’t had much of an example as to how to parent. Baby’s mother died not long after she was born so the two of them have managed to survive somehow. Jules has a heroin habit, sometimes on, sometimes off and a penchant for taking off and leaving Baby alone for days at a time. Baby drifts from one “friend” to another, getting into scrapes. She has no self esteem and is vulnerable to a charismatic neighbourhood pimp who turns his eye to her.
O’Neill speaks from the point of view of a 12 year old quite well, promoting her vulnerabilities, her fear, her childish joy, her longing for something better and acceptance for the life she has. It’s a tough, dark story to read. Not a lot of really good things happen to Baby. You ache for Baby when she’s bullied, you fear for her when the pimp closes in, you get angry when her useless father doesn’t treat her well, you worry when she’s out on the streets with violent friends, you watch the train wreck of addiction speeding ahead.
You get drawn into Baby’s life and you want to see her find a safe place to grow up and pull herself up away from the influences that are dragging her down and will continue to do so until something really bad inevitably happens. You hope against hope that she’ll find some stability and support. She’s a tough little cookie but she’s still just a child and shouldn’t have to experience the things she does. Even she knows that but she’s all but given up because it’s just easier to give in with so much stacked against her. Reading this book feels unrelentlessly bleak but you also feel like it’s very real and true.
You even feel a bit of sympathy for Jules who really was too young to be a father and was left along at 16 to bring up a baby totally unprepared, struggling to keep themselves fed, housed and then succumbing to addictions. He does seem to love her but doesn’t know how to show it and she really needs someone to love her and be a positive influence which he’s not. You have to give him credit for keeping her, not giving her up to the system when Baby’s mother died on one hand but on the other, maybe that would have been better for her in the long run. He finds an extreme solution to keep her safe that ultimately almost pushes her away from him for good. In the end, there is an open door and a ray of hope.
This book won several awards and nominated for awards when it was released and was a Canada Reads winner in 2007.